We live in an interconnected world – both in the relatively modern sense of being connected through technology and transportation, but also from the perspectives of our nervous systems. The approximately 70 kilometers of nerve cells that move us, physically and mentally, have adapted to keep us connected to the world around us to, essentially, keep us safe from harm. There are three main functions that accomplish all the things that keep us going: sensation, perception, and appraisal.
Sensation is when these nerve cells take an input from the environment, such as light, sound, or touch, and convert them into the electric signals that our nervous systems use.
Perception is the process by which our brains interpret these electric signals and interpret them by assigning a label to them.
Say you are driving a car, and approaching an intersection. The red light coming up sends light rays to the back of your eye (so long as your eyes are on the road), and sensation is what tells your brain there is light there. Perception is how your brain knows it is red. However, the label “red” is arbitrary and, in itself, conveys no meaning.
Appraisal is what follows after perception, and is the cognitive process by which we interpret “red” to mean “stop if you want to be safe and/or follow the law”, and lead to all the things we need to do to make that happen (such as moving the muscles in our leg and feet to apply pressure to the brake pedal).
This process, from Sensation to Action, is the foundational biological process that makes CBT work, and is where we’re going to focus the work for the first week of this program. In CBT, the Perception and Appraisal steps are important. Our brains have a tremendous amount of information that goes through the “Sensation” step, and if we were to act on all of it, we wouldn’t have energy left for anything else. So, in order to keep things running smoothly and only action important information, our brains use a set of shortcuts. To go back to the driving example, when you were learning to drive, it probably took you a little longer to react to a red light than it does now. This is because, when learning, you had to think “red means stop” before acting, and when acting, you had to get used to where the pedals were. Now, a red light probably leads to an almost instant response.
CBT calls this an automatic thought, something that you think simply based on an environmental cue, somewhat like how touching a hot stove leads to a quick recoil without getting the appraisal step involved. This happens with other physical sensations, like something moving in our pocket and our brain interpreting that as our phone buzzing, even though it didn’t.
This also happens with emotions. Have you ever noticed someone roll their eyes at you and think “I must have done something wrong”? That is an automatic thought, and is the result of appraisal. Key to CBT is that appraisal or automatic thought may be incorrect, and that incorrect thought might be doing us a disservice.
That’s the point of the next 5 weeks of this program; understanding these automatic thoughts and whether or not they add value to our lives. We encourage clients to think of themselves as scientists, making careful observations about their lives and their environments, testing hypotheses, and making adjustments.